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Sound Advice 

Ancient slack-key, futuristic sex slaves, and time-spanning schizophrenia

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
Besides being Hawaii's last head of state before the U.S. annexation of 1893, Queen Lili'uokalani remains one of the islands' most beloved composers. On To Honor a Queen: The Music of Lili'uokalani, the well-respected arranger, composer, and accompanist Ozzie Kotani offers tribute to the queen by performing instrumental classics such as "Aloha 'Oe." Most of the 14 songs here existed only in concert and sheet music prior to Kotani's recording, leaving plenty of room for him to add bridges and introductions to the simple melodies. Still, authorship is unmistakable. Slow, delicate, stately, and a little mournful, these songs certainly sprang from the same pen that wrote in 1893, "I declare such a treaty to be an act of wrong toward the native and part-native people of Hawaii, an invasion of the rights of the ruling chiefs, the perpetuation of the fraud whereby the constitutional government was overthrown, and, finally, an act of gross injustice to me." Ozzie Kotani performs along with slack-key guitar greats Keola Beamer and George Kahumoku on Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Unity Palo Alto Community Church (3391 Middlefield Rd.) at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20-22; call 586-1611.

Many of my friends are more than a little disappointed by the new millennium, having surrendered their childhood Jetsons fantasies of hovercrafts, holophones, and robot maids for limited-edition Shag prints and overpriced bubble chairs. Tech writers David Pescovitz and Brad Wieners offer a dissenting view, saying, "Buck up, little buckaroos, for the future is now -- you just don't recognize it yet." For 1996's Reality Check, a book based on Pescovitz's bright and humorous "futurist" column in Wired, Pescovitz and Wieners interviewed 100 experts -- everyone from Timothy Leary and geneticist Cynthia Robbins-Roth to the president-elect of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgeons and transportation authority Noah Rifkin -- on subjects as far-ranging as contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, human cloning, food tablets, remote-control surgery, smart homes, virtual sex slaves, and, of course, robot maids. In their book, Pescovitz and Wieners offered clear-cut ETAs -- the end of male pattern baldness would arrive in 2006, the holophone in 2018, quick "sober up" drugs in 2020, nonaddictive sleeping pills in 2005, and virtual Top 40 artists in 1998 -- many of which critics called audacious. Five years later, however, the authors believe they weren't bold enough. In their lecture, "Post Futurism in Review (or A Brief History of Tomorrow)," Pescovitz and Wieners examine the imminent future (those predicted events now at hand) and passed futurism (those items already come and gone because no one cared). Witness video and live demonstrations of such things as the first commercial "smart" shirt and virtual sex slaves and giggle at our "potential." David Pescovitz and Brad Wieners appear on Sunday, Jan. 20, at Spanganga (3376 19th St. at Mission) at 7 p.m. Admission is $5-10; call 821-1102.

Wesley Willis has produced no fewer than 30 CDs since 1993, when he became the enfant gâté of Chicago's artsy Wicker Park neighborhood. Of course, an exact number of his recordings is difficult to calculate, since many of them were released through Wesley Willis Enterprises (a company designated by a sign tacked to his bedroom door) and distributed by way of street-corner shows. It's a good bet, though, that most of the albums were 24 songs in length, with each tune finishing at just under three minutes and adhering to a strict structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-instrumental break-verse-chorus that mentions the song title at least four times. This is Willis' guileless way, a means of silencing the "demons" that took residence in the cockloft of his skull after he suffered years of domestic violence via his father's hand.

For those who have had their noggins buried in oatmeal, here's a little history: Willis is an acute schizophrenic who spent years singing for change before tone-setters like Steve Albini and the Beastie Boys' Mike D. championed his songs. Willis bears the scars from his disease -- during an uncontrollable subway rant, his face met up with a box cutter-wielding critic -- and the lyrical sensibility to go with it. Certainly it is Willis' words, not his devotion to the "country rock 8" setting on his cherished Technics KN2000 keyboard, that has turned him into a cult favorite. While overeducated do-gooders have argued the ethical implication of finding glee in the manifestations of a mental disorder, Willis is no less gleeful. He is a funny, funny man, and he knows it, most of the time. From his heartfelt tributes to the artists who have inspired him (Alice in Chains, Eazy-E, Elvis Presley, the Frogs, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Urge Overkill) to his fantastic departures ("I Whupped Batman's Ass," "The Chicken Cow," "Kris Kringle Was a Car Thief") to his commemoration of the commonplace ("STP Conked Out My Engine," "The Termites Ate My Dead Ass Up," "I'm Sorry That I Got That Fat") to his signature insertion of product slogans at the end of each song, Willis revels in the simple things that give him comfort and, in so doing, offers the rest of us respite from the self-absorbed tensions of the world. And when Willis does adjust his settings to release steam or tackle issues of violence and brutality -- both internal and external, but mostly internal -- his expressions of shame, rage, and ignominy are so candid that even the most jaded listener might be reduced to shifting his feet awkwardly until the next song about vampire bats.

During this tour, Willis has thankfully abandoned his punk backing band Fiasco in favor of his earlier "stripped down" approach. Perhaps this change comes at the behest of Alternative Tentacles, whose Willis releases favor the more direct sound of one man and his keyboard. Wesley Willis performs on Tuesday, Jan. 22, at the Great American Music Hall with Die Goldenen Zitronen, Grand Buffet, and Custom On It opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 885-0750.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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